Earlier this month, Tommy Hunter, owner of Tommy’s Diner in downtown Kingston, and friends paired up with Autism Ontario for a third time to create and deliver 39 meal kits for families to make together at home. The volunteer-made meal kits come with a fun and interactive video series for parents and their autistic children to cook up a meal together from their own kitchens.
Third iteration of ‘Cookin’ with Friends’ meal kits and tutorials
Tommy’s Diner has been a remarkable vehicle for community outreach for many years with initiatives such as their Annual Christmas Turkey Dinner as well as donating 1,600 meals during the first COVID-19 lockdown through their “Sharing and Caring Program.”
With these meal kits, “The whole goal is to bring families with autistic children together through an activity, and cooking is that activity,” explained Hunter in a phone interview on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Hunter has been making these interactive meal kits since March of 2021 through a grant provided by Autism Ontario. He explained that he got a call from the organization out of the blue one day.
“Someone must have told [Autism Ontario] that I really like doing community events,” said Hunter, “and so [they explained,] ‘We have this thought, we’ve got this grant and we want to start doing… cooking classes for families.'”
The program is geared towards families with autistic children of a flexible age range around five to 10 years old. Families can pre-register online for the meal kits when available. The kits are designed to feed a family of four, but, as Hunter said, “I’ve always been the type to feel that you’re always better to have leftovers than to have people be hungry… When we did this a few months ago, it was a lasagna kit with salad and garlic toast that easily could have fed 6 people.”
At first, Hunter created kits with three different meals and two desserts for the March 2021 launch. He explained that, because only he and his team of four volunteer to put these kits together, putting together that many meals and portioning each ingredient was, “just so much work.”
“It’s me and my friends; we just volunteer, and we’ve titled it ‘Cookin’ With Friends.’ But because it is all volunteer… we’ve tried to simplify it as best we can,” he explained.
So, they’ve since streamlined the process in their two consecutive kits. “Now we have one person that does the filming just on an iPhone, and then her husband and my best friend handle a lot of the packing while we’re doing the filming and walking through it.”
‘It’s always more fun when you’re cooking with friends!’
This month’s meal kit included all the ingredients for “smash burgers and fries” along with Hunter’s sidekick, Jessie Colwin divulging her “Grandma’s famous cupcake recipe.” Although the meal itself was simple, Hunter was mindful of creating an immersive experience for the kids.
“It’s like, okay, we’re gonna slice the tomato. Now here, we’re gonna slice the lettuce to put on your burger… Then, cupcakes for dessert! We put in four different types of sprinkles, so they can decorate themselves, and we try and make it interactive for the kids as possible,” explained Hunter.
Tommy and friends Dana Scott (iPhone “videographer extraordinaire”), Colin Graves, and Jessie and Mike Colwin have a great time “hanging out in the kitchen, thinking we’re hilarious, making cheesy jokes,” while filming the video tutorials for the meal kits. “It’s always more fun when you’re cooking with friends,” Hunter laughed.
‘The parents tell me how much the kids love it’
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a ton of fun,” said Hunter. The single dad explained that he understands the importance and value of parents cooking with their kids. “I cook with [my 14-month-old] in her little booster, seat which is right on the counter. Like, she doesn’t want to play — She’s hanging out with me.”
He reflected on their last meal kit, which had families dusting and deep frying popcorn chicken, worrying that, “Oh, that might have been kind of dangerous with the oil, you know?” But, he said, “we got the best feedback from it and people loved it!”
Hunter said that in his videos he tries to educate families on common cooking dangers and how to avoid them at home. “[In one early video] I overfilled oil, and oil spilled up all over the stove — and in the video, I just say, ‘Now make sure you don’t overfill your oil like I did. Because that can be really dangerous, like it is right now for me.’ So, you know, again, it’s not pro — but it’s a lot of fun, and the parents are telling me how much the kids love it.”
Hunter said that the feedback they’ve received on the meal kits has been overwhelmingly positive. “I started throwing my [business] card in with the meal kits just to say ‘Hey, I’d love your feedback,'”he said. And in return, parents would “send pictures of their kids, and a lot of them are younger and they’re just having a ton of fun in the kitchen learning some new cooking skills.”
Autism Ontario did not respond to comment on their involvement with the meal kit collaboration prior to publishing. However, for more information or to register for the program, visit the Autism Ontario event page for the next ‘Cookin’ with Friends’ event, which takes place March 23 to 30, 2022.